Dealing With Adblock: 5 Options That Don’t Work

In 1984 Stewart Brand famously said to Steve Wozniak that “information wants to be free”. Nearly 30 years later, 2.4 billion people are enjoying a lot of “free” information online. Unfortunately, those who create this valuable content are still searching for ways to be properly paid.

Users of adblock claim that it’s up to publishers to move away from their current advertising-based revenue model; unfortunately adblock’s suggestions for alternatives are conspicuous by their absence. With more visitors than ever blocking ads, what other ways can publishers get paid for the content they produce?

Option #1: Set the information free

Brand’s famous phrase “information wants to be free” has become the de facto slogan of the internet, but it entirely misses his intended point.

“On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.” – Stewart Brand

We implicitly pay for content when we view ads, and its impossible for publishers to survive without this revenue. Simply removing ads from content, as adblockers suggest, is not a viable solution.

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Option #2: Pay to View

Paywalls are back in fashion as newspapers desperately try to find their feet online. Unfortunately, even the most successful publications (think New York Times) are having difficulty making it work, and many abandon the effort. Conversion rates from visitor-to-subscriber are in the low single-digit range. To make things worse, by turning away the vast majority of your readers, you undermine yourself. These visitors can’t tweet or share your content, search engines can’t crawl it, and other websites are discouraged from linking to it. The first result for a Google search for “NY Times paywall” is “5 Ways You Can Still Get Around The NYT Paywall”, which demonstrates the lengths that users will go to access content for free. For many sites the paywall option means abandoning growth in favor of monetization.

Option #3: The Luxury Lounge

A less dramatic option is voluntary subscription, also known as the “freemium” model. For a small recurring fee you present your visitors with the option to enjoy your site without ads, or receive other minor perks and recognition. Unlike Pay to View, the Luxury Lounge doesn’t exclude thrifty readers. Online games often adopt this model as they can sell game-related virtual items that have no production cost to them. It’s a different story for publishers, where the success of the Luxury Lounge depends on the loyalty of your visitors. Reddit’s Gold membership has been quite successful, but its users are both loyal and numerous. Ultimately publishers can only expect 2-4% of their visitors to pay, and its extremely difficult to operate a business on these terms. Even Reddit is still in the red, despite their 70 million readers.

Option #4: Rattle the Tin Can

Visitors to Wikipedia are now intimately familiar with the face of Jimmy Wales, thanks to their highly successful donation drives. On a smaller scale, the Paypal “Donate” button has been ubiquitous on blogs for years. While publishers would like to believe that their visitors are loyal and their high-quality content warrants donations, our own data about adblock users shows the contrary. Less than 1% of adblock users make a donation to support a site when shown an appeal.

Option #5: Crowdfunding platforms

Most recently, many businesses have used Kickstarter to take the Tin Can strategy to a new level. This approach requires careful planning and you need to make sure you hit your funding goal (or else return all the money). If you have a large and loyal audience you might replicate the success of Penny Arcade, who in in 2012 raised over $500k with a campaign, removed all ads from their site and started a new comic strip. Of course, this campaign had novelty value and probably won’t scale. What would happen if all 2 million publishers in the Adsense network created projects on Kickstarter?

What’s next?

All of these alternatives reduce free access to information. Paywalls block a majority of users from accessing content, freemium introduces a two-tier system with more for those who pay, while donations leave publishers’ existence dependant on charity. Is this what adblockers want?

The creators of adblock understand that diminishing ad revenues are a real threat to the internet. In a recent interview Till Faida, CEO of Adblock Plus, stated that “Ads are important to keep the internet free.” Similarly the creator of Adblock (not associated with Adblock Plus) believes that adblocking will “harm the web if implemented at a large scale”.

The problem here isn’t advertising in general: it’s bad advertising. The trend in adblock adoption demonstrates that users are dissatisfied with current, intrusive attempts to grab their attention. This is the real issue that needs to be addressed if we wish to keep information free.

  • I resisted ad blocking for a long time. Finally I felt forced to deal with it when the ads became too annoying.
    Totally unacceptable is:-
    – To run my CPU at 100% to create e.g. animated banners. This causes the PC to be unresponsive to me, the fan on the laptop to run flat out and my lap to overheat. It’s my computer not yours.
    – To make any kind of noise. It’s my house not yours.
    – To obscure the content with moving or hard to close or too many pop-ups.
    When I install the ad blocker I allow Google ads because I know that they are not grossly intrusive. I have never felt the need to restrict Google ads.
    The rest have something to learn from the most successful internet advertising company that exists.

  • I look at it this way. The ads on a site are the admission fee for visiting the site. If the fee is too high (ads too numerous or obnoxious) I don’t continue to visit the site. The use of Adblock and its equivalents is wrong. It is stealing. And the people who use it know this and are deliberately stealing, no matter what they say.
    I know that the users of Adblock recognize that they are stealing because they explicitly get together to find ways around paywalls. The purpose of a paywall is quite obvious. The owner of a site wants to get paid. To consume the content while explicitly avoiding the bill is just the “five-finger discount” all over again.
    Paywalls are less useful because many honest users won’t want to pay and will just not visit the site. But at least they are honest and not thieves.

    • I disagree. If blocking ads is ‘stealing’, then every time you look away or zap to another channel (and zap back when the ads are over) when watching television or whatever is also ‘stealing’, and people could thus be sentenced as ‘thieves’. Such a notion is absurd.
      There is no legally binding eula nor actual obligation to force you to watch or even accept ads for the ‘permission’ to look at the site. It’s still up to you, as an individual, to decide what you want as spam/ads, and what not, after all. If it’s REALLY intended as a ‘permission’ to access the site, sites can block their info and regular content when they notice one is using an adblocker (some do this already). In that case, it simply becomes a matter of the free market: demand and supply. If one *really* wants to see the content, and it’s the only way to get it, people will disable their adblocker, if not, they won’t. It’s as simple as that.
      The real problem here is, as some above have already indicated: it’s not that most people would not accept some mild form of ads on sites that give great content in return, it’s that almost every site on the internet pounds you with a truckload of the most annoying and intrusive ads possible.
      If sites would starkly reduce this, and only have a limited amount of non-intrusive ads, preferable personalised to the interest of the reader, most people would not mind.

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